Syntax and Modernism in Emily Dickinson’s fascicle poems
: a corpus-informed literary critical approach

  • Mark Boardman

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis



This research aims to answer the question of whether it is possible to devise a combination of literary critical, corpus linguistic and computational techniques as an effective methodology for investigating the critical significance of selected syntactic markers in Emily Dickinson’s fascicle poems. At the same time it examines whether Dickinson’s 818 fascicle poems show syntactic evidence prototypical of Modernism.

The thesis draws equally on selected theoretical insights from three disciplines: stylistics, natural language processing and literary criticism. It works from a premise of mutual acceptance and interoperability between the three disciplines and attempts to demonstrate that a synergistic relationship between them is possible. Aspects of the thesis can be related to some selected practices described broadly within the discipline digital humanities, but the methodological workflow proposed does not fall neatly or wholly into the traditions or central practices of any single established academic discipline.

The primary data for the study is a corpus consisting of the nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson’s 818 ‘fascicle’ poems, discovered as 40 hand-stitched booklets by her sister Lavinia after her death, but not published during Dickinson’s lifetime. One poem from this corpus has been chosen as demonstrating on an initially notional, subjective basis some fragmentary syntactic features, combined with ambivalent first person pronominal references, in patterns that are hypothesised to be prototypically indicative of stylistic features, such as self-fragmentation, as outlined in Brown (1989). These syntactic and pronominal patterns were then encoded using NooJ, a rule-based linguistic development and corpus processing software engine, and the entire corpus queried to produce concordance outputs indicating the relative prevalence and contextual occurrences of the computationally encoded syntactic and pronominal patterns. In the, qualitative phase of the critical process, a literary critical argument is constructed as to whether the concordance outputs from the computational phase of the process are prototypically indicative of the early twentieth-century cultural and literary critical concept known as ‘Modernism’. The penultimate chapter assesses some possible pedagogical applications of these methodological experiments in the context of pedagogical stylistics and English teaching in sixth forms and universities.
Date of Award11 Oct 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorDan McIntyre (Main Supervisor)

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